This summer Tyler Miller will move to Pittsburgh to begin classes at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His career goal: Work in pediatrics. His life goal: Help children and families who are going through medical hardships.
A biological sciences major and Honors College member from Vienna, West Virginia, Miller is the Virginia Tech College of Science’s Outstanding Senior for 2018. When he arrived as a first-year student four years ago, he already knew he wanted a career where he could help people, particularly families.
“When I was a senior in high school, I unexpectedly lost my sister, who was 12 at the time, to a congenital heart disease that we did not even know she had,” Miller said. “The pediatric cardiologist we saw after her death really impacted me. I would like to someday help families through difficult times like he did with mine.”
His research work and volunteerism efforts at Virginia Tech have all been geared toward disease, health, and the evolution of biological systems. In the lab of Assistant Professor Joel McGlothlin, Miller has been studying how certain garter snakes are able to eat highly toxic, rough-skinned newts that if eaten by any other animal or human would result in, well, that newt being a last meal.
“In the McGlothlin Lab, I’ve performed techniques such as DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction, and gel electrophoresis,” Miller said. “I’ve also been heavily involved in studies on Anolis lizard populations, through which I’ve gotten to handle lizards.”
Miller’s work builds on the research of adaptive evolution of toxin resistance by McGlothlin and other scientists. “These snakes are resistant to the newts’ deadly toxin, which is secreted through newts’ skin. This has caused the newts to evolve to produce more and more toxin, and snakes have evolved to become more and more resistant over millions of years,” Miller said. “We call it a ‘coevolutionary arms race.’”
While there is no direct connection between the snake-newt evolutionary battle and human medical treatment, the work can help scientists chart the evolution of genes in people. “We have the same sodium channel genes that snakes do,” Miller said. “There are six genes in the sodium channel gene family that are all involved in toxin resistance, making our study a really great model system for the parallel evolution of genes over time.” (Miller is quick to add that humans are not resistant to the toxic newts.)
“As a doctor, it’s important to have a good understanding of the nervous system, which is what the toxin targets, as well as how complex, multiple-gene traits have evolved,” Miller added. “This research also has applications in pain sensation and pain prevention because the gene I study is involved in pain sensation and the toxin, tetrodotoxin, has a numbing effect.”
McGlothlin praised Miller in a nomination letter as “one of the 10 best students” he’s ever taught.
“Tyler has been an amazing presence in the lab. He’s not only great at the molecular bench, but he also has an excellent grasp of the concepts behind the science he’s doing,” McGlothlin said. “In his thesis work, he’s worked independently, and has made intellectual contributions every step of the way, from study design to data analysis. Tyler has also helped out with countless other projects during his time in the lab. He’s been able to not just excel in his own projects, but to make everyone else around him better.”
Miller has dedicated himself to researching or volunteering in the field of medicine, both in the United States and abroad, in myriad ways.
He was part of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute Summer Scholars Program in 2017, supported by a U.S. National Institutes of Health stipend. Miller worked in a lab, focusing on changes to chromatin composition in virally infected human cells.
“Working in Philly for a summer not only allowed me to get experience in children’s health, but also equipped me with research skills,” Miller said. “I like being around kids. They are fun and I like the idea of helping them achieve goals in their futures.”
Through an Honors College scholarship, Miller volunteered in medical clinics, orphanages, and schools in Peru during spring break 2017. He organized the trip as a founding member and director of volunteering of the Virginia Tech chapter of the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children. He was one of 14 students to travel to Peru as part of the student-led group. “I was only in Peru for a week, but it was a great experience that built on my interests in children’s wellness and global health,” he said.
Closer to home, Miller has served in various positions, including president of the Virginia Tech Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, a volunteer group dedicated to helping refugees adapt to America, especially locally in the Roanoke region. “The positivity and strength that refugees exude after enduring extraordinary hardship has inspired me and made me see the world in a more positive light,” he said.
In 2015, Miller participated in a Hokies Abroad: Sustainability and Conservation summer program, traveling to Australia and New Zealand to study the relationship between humans and the environment.
The experiences Miller has had at Virginia Tech in service, travel, and dedication to health and medicine reinforce why he chose Blacksburg for college. “Ut Prosim is something that resonates deeply with me. I cared about being somewhere that would help me get involved in service,” Miller said.